For the last several months, the COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented time of uncertainty and anxiety for people from all parts of the world. What was initially thought to be a virus that would start and end in another country has marched across oceans to settle on virtually every continent and in almost every country. Health care professionals and medical staff on the front lines are working around the clock to help heal the sick and attempt to reduce and prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Medical staff aside, many people here in the United States are concerned and anxious about how to manage existing health and mental health problems during this crisis, especially when the support systems they usually rely heavily upon have been altered or temporarily eliminated.
Activities that were once enjoyable and common such as checking social media accounts or watching the news, have become sources of anxiety and fear. Each night the news coverage leans heavily towards the negative coverage associated with how many new COVID-19 patients were diagnosed in a particular city or state or worse, how many people have lost their lives to this pandemic so far. As worldwide cases approach two million (with over six hundred thousand in the United States alone), it is easy to wonder when this will come to an end, and our lives can return to something closer to a state of ordinary.
Feelings of increased anxiety and isolation are normal for everyone at this time. For those who were in recovery or the early stages of rehab when the events of the pandemic began, additional challenges are certainly likely. Social distancing and stay at home orders have thrown a curve into regular activities and traditional routines. Voluntary or involuntary quarantines have made it challenging to communicate with the members of your social circles who help to keep emotions in check when feelings of anxiety and fear begin to elevate. Although things appear particularly bleak and dreary right now, there are things you can do to help protect your mental health and your sobriety during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Addiction and COVID-19
Managing an addiction of any kind might be especially challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic. Alcohol use or abuse disorders may also be more challenging than what would be considered “normal.” Someone who has a history of addiction either with or without a co-existing mental health condition may be at increased risk for harm from COVID-19 either directly through illness or indirectly through its other effects. COVID-19 may also be a threat to recovery due to the ways it has changed our everyday lives. People in recovery often require some form of daily interaction with care providers to access needed medication or with social support circles. Others who don’t require daily medication such as to combat withdrawal symptoms maintain recovery through ongoing therapy and/or involvement with group sessions such as twelve-step programs. The COVID-19 pandemic and the importance (and necessity) of social distancing have created significant barriers to accessing these much-needed sources of support. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has created increased vulnerabilities in the areas of health and financial security, which can also be barriers to continued recovery or sobriety.
Social Media-Benefits and Challenges
Fortunately (and sometimes, unfortunately) we live in a time where technology and the internet have made communication and contact more accessible than ever. Social networks and social support circles are particularly crucial during all stages of recovery from addiction. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it new ways of living that make connection with social support networks challenging at best. Throughout the world, the idea of social distancing and “flattening the curve” have come to the forefront of how society functions. People are expected to remain at a minimum, six feet apart when in public settings.
Additionally, most states in the United States are functioning under stay at home orders, which means citizens are expected to stay home unless they need to go out for essential items such as groceries, the pharmacy, or to seek medical help. In conjunction with stay at home orders, many businesses have also been closed, which have added increased financial challenges above and beyond the challenges faced with regards to social distancing. As a result, we need to seek out new or different ways to connect with others to garner or give needed support without physically being in the same room or building. Enter social media.
As noted above, we are fortunate to live in a time where social media, smart technology, and virtual communication tools help communication and contact remain possible when we are all expected to stay physically apart. Although consistent viewing of social media feeds can indeed increase anxiety at this time, it can also be the easiest and most effective way to maintain communication with loved ones, friends, and social support networks while social distancing guidelines remain in effect. Many people are turning to apps on smartphones and iPads and laptops, such as Skype, Zoom, and Facetime to virtually connect with the people they are not able to be with at this time physically. Also, several support programs such as twelve-step programs associated with alcohol recovery have transitioned their sessions to online environments. These online and virtual communications allow people to maintain required social distancing guidelines and avoid group gatherings while still being able to participate in much-needed group sessions with their support circles or even private therapy sessions with their provider on an individual basis.
In addition to social supports, many medical providers have also transitioned their care practices to social networks in the form of telemedicine. This ensures people can talk to their provider and receive the care they need again while maintaining social distancing and stay at home order guidelines.
Despite the benefits afforded by social media, it is essential to remember the news coverage currently trending on social media at this time can be triggering. There is understandably a significant amount of negative news coverage around the COVID-19 pandemic and the multitude of impacts it has had on society at every level. Use caution when viewing social media or television news and limit your screen time to the best of your ability. This will help reduce anxiety triggers and perhaps the other triggers which could lead to self-medication or putting ongoing sobriety or recovery at risk.
Ways to Social Distance and Maintain Recovery
Social distancing guidelines are an impediment to many standard recovery practices. Below are some things you can do to maintain sobriety or and your recovery process while still adhering to social distancing guidelines and stay at home orders.
- Keep your plan in place-despite all of the changes going on in the world and how we live in it; it remains important to have a plan for recovery and continue your work on that plan. Your plan needs to take into consideration some of the things that may happen as a result of COVID-19. These include things such as complicated emotions associated with concerns about your health or the health of your loved ones. It also includes plans for increased anxiety associated with financial or emotional stressors that are different than those you normally experience. Having a plan in place to deal with both typical and unanticipated triggers will help to ensure you can get through these emotionally challenging times.
- Rely on skills you already have-while in rehab, and throughout the subsequent weeks of recovery, you have learned and developed avoidance and escape skills, which are designed to help you avoid self-medication or other unhealthy coping skills. You will need to call in these skills to help you identify alternative activities that respect social distancing guidelines, but that does not include potentially addictive behavior. Some examples of such activities may consist of practicing mindfulness and relaxation skills, getting exercise, or learning a new hobby or skill. You may also want to communicate your goals and the activities you are participating in or wanting to be part of with loved ones or those who are members of your support circle. This may help to increase the level of support you have access to when you need it most.
- Use your social support networks-right now people feel more isolated and separated than ever before. Some of this is indeed involuntary as people who are ill or symptomatic choose to isolate themselves to avoid spreading COVID-19 to others. For others, isolation is involuntary; however, necessary again to protect those who are more susceptible to illness. Unfortunately, people who are in recovery often need their social support networks to maintain sobriety. During these times, if you find you are feeling triggered or in need of communication, turn to your social supports through virtual means and communicate with your housemate or partner as well. As noted above, there are many reliable virtual and social media resources and apps that can help you stay connected. Many people are also hosting virtual watch or virtual Netflix parties as a means for being “together” when staying apart is necessary. Regardless of the method, be clear to yourself what your needs are and communicate those needs to the people who are able to help you.
- Identify means to communicate with medical professionals or sponsors-many therapists are taking their services online, as are medical providers and sponsors. While online services will not last forever (and will not be necessary forever), they are slated to last for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. This means if you feel you are in need of help that family and friends may not be able to provide, your therapist or group sponsor is likely just a phone call away. This may not be a suitable alternative for those in need of medication or medical support. In those cases, you may need to contact your local emergency services or medical health provider to inquire about how you should handle your needs. This is especially true if you are at a critical time in your recovery where self-medication could put your sobriety in jeopardy.
Any crisis will test the resilience of even the strongest among us. The COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis that has or will touch virtually every American in some form, either personally or through effects on those we know. It is vital to assure you act proactively to protect your health both mentally and physically during these times. Proactivity and ensuring your support system is in place may also help you to avoid relapsing into harmful addiction-related behaviors as a result of triggering events or emotions. Relapse is common during recovery, and the COVID-19 has introduced challenges and concerns above and beyond those generally associated with recovery. Relapse does not prevent you from entering recovery again.
To avoid the potential for relapse during this time, it is essential to lean on your social support circles through any means possible. In most cases, this will be virtually or through phone calls or video chats. This is ok. It still offers you the opportunity to communicate with those who can help you through emotionally triggering or challenging events. It is also vital to practice regular self-care, and to remember you are not alone in the emotions you are feeling. Limit screen time on social media or the television to the extent possible to avoid additional potentially harmful triggers. Most importantly, take care of yourself and prioritize your health and wellness. Consider reaching out to The Hills Treatment Center today to learn more about our addiction treatment programs.